A Return to the Partner-Up Rodeo: This Nebraska rodeo, which will warm your heart and lift your spirits, is made for everybody

A Return to the Partner-Up Rodeo: This Nebraska rodeo, which will warm your heart and lift your spirits, is made for everybody

By Tyler Dahlgren

It was the perfect day for a rodeo, with temperatures in the mid-70’s and the wind low, a date North Platte freshman Cash Johanson has had circled on his calendar for much of the year.

At 15-years-old, Cash showed up to the Wild West Arena last Wednesday an old pro. The Partner-Up Rodeo, which matches student volunteer “partners” with students with special needs, is one of his very favorite things. And this year’s rodeo, the 11th annual, was the biggest and the best yet.

“For a lot of these kids, this is the one day out of the year, or one of the very few days out of the year, that is all about them,” said Cory Johanson, who pulls double duty as treasurer on the Partner-Up Rodeo board and a rodeo participant dad. “This is something that’s specifically geared towards students with special needs. The smiles on their faces, and them just being able to be themselves and have fun, that’s huge.”

NPSA had been to the rodeo before, back in September of 2018. Five years was too long a gap in between visits, and some things had definitely changed from then to now. This year’s rodeo had more than 200 participants and 300 volunteers. After months of preparation, Wednesday was a time for the committee members and planning team to bask in the joy of the day.

“It’s an indescribable feeling,” said Megan Lantis, Western Region Autism Coordinator for the Nebraska ASD Network and Regional Transition Facilitator for the Western Region. “When you see all the pieces come together, when you pair participants up with their student partners and the adults, there’s just smiles all the way around. Students we maybe see in a different light within the school building look a whole lot differently when they’re at Partner-Up Rodeo. It’s amazing.”

ESU 16 Administrator James McGown knows those smiles well. He was superintendent at Brady Public Schools before joining ESU 16, and though he’d never been to the rodeo before Wednesday, the elation he used to see on everyone’s faces returning from North Platte each year told him all he needed to know.

The Partner-Up Rodeo is special, and it’s meant for everybody.

“The event draws people from Benkelman to Mullen, and that’s a massive area,” said McGown. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that.”

In fact, there are students who travel up to four hours one-way to volunteer at the rodeo. And with as many activities as they have planned, from the petting zoo to the cattle roping to the horseback rides (an overwhelming crowd favorite), it truly does take all-hands-on-deck to run as smoothly as it does.

“There is a ton of behind-the-scenes work that happens prior to the day, and we have evolved with how we prepare as we have grown,” said Lantis. “We grow and learn every year. We tweak things and make adjustments here and there. Eventually, we’re going to have to put a manual together. That’s on the horizon.”

Lantis, who’s been a part of Partner-Up Rodeo for 11 years now, makes the undertaking sound like no big deal. But until you experience the rodeo for yourself, it’s easy to overlook how well-oiled of a machine the event has become. Lantis credits the community for the rodeo’s success. Never once, she explained, has the committee had any strife at all when searching for volunteers. Folks come in waves wanting to help out.

“I believe we just have a very giving culture,” she said. “People are quick to ask ‘What can I do to help?’ and to say ‘Put me down on the list for next year.’ And I think that’s due to the walkaway feeling that you get, where you’re so impacted by not only the students that participate, but by the genuine goodness that you feel from the entire day.”

Johanson, Director of Commercial Agriculture Banking at First National Bank of Omaha in North Platte, has another inkling on the side.

“I think the structure and the organization is a product of having a bunch of people that have educational backgrounds,” said Johanson, who is married to a teacher himself. “I really appreciate that. You can see a lot of the structure when the planning is going on, when the educational background really kicks in.”

Johanson, who wielded a spatula from his post behind the grill, served around 300 hamburgers and 200-and-something hot dogs during the lunch, which followed a performance by the Mid-Plains Community College Rodeo team, who stuck around and helped at various stations before the rodeo wrapped up shortly after 2 p.m.. They held a collegiate rodeo of their own the following two days, when many of the Partner-Up Rodeo kids they supported had a chance to return the favor.

“That’s been such a great connection for us,” said Lantis. “They brought about 40 people, rodeo athletes and coaches, and provided great entertainment in the morning, which, from a planning perspective, was totally welcomed. After that, we joked with them that their work wasn’t quite done and paired them up with kids or placed them at the horse station. Many are young adults that have grown up in Partner-Up Rodeo as high school athletes. It’s fun for them to have it come full circle, and it’s really cool to see.”

As a Partner-Up Rodeo parent, Johanson said the day is uniquely humbling. The experience, he said, is one of the rare ones in life that’ll put a smile on your face and a tear in your eye, at the same time.

“As a parent, it’s just humbling and awesome to be a part of this,” he said. “For these kids, too, they understand that it’s genuine, that the people here care about them and care about them having the best time possible. It all adds to the experience and makes it memorable.”

So memorable that Cash will soon have the next Partner-Up Rodeo circled on the calendar for 2024.

“Once we get a date for next year, he’ll be looking forward to it,” Johanson said with a chuckle. “For my son, having those peers there as partners is a lot of fun. That’s a big part of this too, the relationships that are formed between the students with special needs and the partners.”

Perhaps it’s that connection which radiates the brightest. With magic happening in every corner of the Wild West Arena, it’s hard to tell.

“I am so proud of our junior high and high school rodeo volunteers and the students that come and dedicate themselves to the day,” Lantis added. “The way they step up and step in is unbelievable.”

Partner-Up Rodeo is so much bigger than one day, Lantis continued. After 11 years, organizers have started to see early glimpses of the rodeo’s lasting impact, something that touches every person who walks through those dusty arena gates. 

There have been lifelong friendships formed. Bonds built that otherwise never would have.

“It’s a way for some of these young people to spend time with kids with special needs and just become friends,” Johanson said. “There are students who have been participating here for several years, and you still see them light up when they see their partners. That is way cool. The more opportunities we can have like this, for people to be around each other and to just have fun, that opens up a lot of doors.”

There have even been student volunteers in the past who were swayed into the field of education because of their experience with Partner-Up Rodeo, Lantis said.

“That’s huge, especially in this day and age in education,” Lantis said. “This can spur the reason why anyone wants to go into education.”

Now, how cool is that?

Cowboy cool.